Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Friends on your Doorstep

The welcome mat.

My first purchase for my new apartment is a brightly colored rug to adorn my entryway: WELCOME greets my visitors in big bold letters. I love it, and I love anticipating who will step across it to find me home.

I have this presentation I do for women, "Whistling Tea Kettles and Welcome Mats". It's mostly about hospitality, and little things Martha Stewart totally misses in pursuit of perfect placemats and superlative souffles. Puh-lease. We're talking more authentic attributes of hospitality, like putting aside your stress to soothe another's. Like embracing the irritable, adjusting to the unplanned, finding words of life to speak into somebody's dark corners.

Welcome mats, I've discovered, can travel well. These days we are on-the-go. A lot. Which means your friends might ring the doorbell to an empty abode. Don't worry -- they'll come back. What I'm proposing is a kind of mobile welcome mat; a fluid hospitality. When you're waiting in line at the bank, or thinking about supper in Aisle B at the grocery -- that's when the impromptu meetings happen. A colleague crosses your path, or a relative you haven't seen in a while. If you're paying attention, you may notice a crease of worry across her forehead, or even a trace of a smile hinting at good news she's about to share. Either way, the best gift you can give in that moment is your absolute genuine delight at meeting her. To be fully present in the moment is to throw down the welcome mat and to say, "Come in! Tell me more."

Fluid hospitality. A travelling threshold, a moveable feast, a whistling teakettle. Oh, I know how busy you are, how focused on the task. You have appointments, meetings, kids to pick up, errands to run. All I'm suggesting is to keep that welcome mat handy and be ready to place it at somebody's feet if only for a few rich minutes. These minutes will nurture your guest, and will refresh your own spirits. Life's noise and hubub can be swirling all around you, but when you lock eyes with a soul in need, time is suspended while eternal things happen. Your genuine concern, a squeeze of the shoulder, a belly laugh, any or all of these will bounce right into her heart and echo throughout the day. Let it happen. Try not to be so preoccupied that you miss an opportunity to toss down that welcome mat and be wild with joy that she showed up.

There is that other niggling reality, however. I'm talking about the people who won't show up on your doorstep, but be very sure they will show up in the details of your day -- and they are unsavory characters. How, then, should we entertain the hostile, the mean spirited, the irritated and the irritable? Should we withhold the welcome mat from them?

I offer up a challenge to myself, and to you, to be available for the abrasive. Sure, it hurts a little to brush up against the unlovely, but your hospitality may be exactly what they need to experience. So, be generous. Be ready. Be real. Your words could well be the only light that filters into their shadowy world today, and your welcome mat the only measure of warmth they will know.

To the familiar and the foreign, I say ... keep the kettle on, keep the door unlocked, and sweep off that welcome mat. You never know when, today, it will be called into duty!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Gap Standers. You know who you are.

Today's blog is dedicated to you. Because of your willingness to "stand in the gap", children have a chance to push the reset button. And parents get a respite from the battle. Your angel wings are hard to detect, because you fly under the radar -- not wanting to draw attention to yourself. Instead, you focus on a child who needs you for a time and a season. You float grace toward that kid in a special way -- a way his natural parents can't always muster. Generously, you offer up meals, advice, a bed, some down time, boundaries, affection, laughter, and gas money. You do this, well, because his mom can't do it right now. She's suddenly single, or unemployed, or for a myriad of reasons she can't find her bearings. Her compass is out of commission and she drifts over to you, Safe Harbor. You become the place where she safely drops anchor, hunkers down, and releases her child to your outstretched arms.

Nobody reads about your accomplishments in the paper. You will never be on Who's Who in Gap-Standing USA. Some days, you don't get a shred of gratitude, even though you've basically moved heaven and earth to keep that kid from falling into the abyss.

I first heard this pithy term, "Stand in the Gap", at a Promise Keepers Conference in Denver. I was covering the event as a radio host. "You stand in the gap!" the speaker bellowed, "you are a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, a figure of discipline when needed. You walk carefully, reinforce the truth, applaud small accomplishments and overlook offenses. Somebody needs you to stand in the gap for their child! Be aware of this, be ready, and please please be obedient when it's your turn. Your season of vigilance may be for a week, or a year or a lifetime; the impression you make is eternal. Do not expect recognition - just be ready to reach across that chasm and give support to a fragile family. You'll know when it's your turn. You'll just know."

I've never forgotten that speech. How could I possibly know I would need a Gap Stander in my sea of grief? You know who you are, and I hope you're reading this because you are my unsung hero, my Mom-in-the-Gap, my ally, my voice that cannot be heard any other way. You have given shelter, food, unconditional love, safety, stability and, most of all, laughter. You were the first to call and tell me you noticed a smile, a genuine smile, break like dawn all over my child's face. This was life to me, hope to my aching heart.

Thank you. If ever I get my turn at Gap Standing, I hope I will be as selfless and amazing as you.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sleeping with Bread

I first learned of this concept, "sleeping with bread," from my dear friend Shirley. She explained we need to hold onto what gives us life. And so the word picture of holding onto a loaf of bread is both figurative and literal. Literal because a loaf of bread became a physical reassurance to kids during the fallout of World War II. During the bombing raids, thousands of children were orphaned and suddenly left to starve. Many were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they were cared for and fed. Because of the trauma, many of these kids could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again abandoned and without food. Finally, a very wise caregiver hit upon a wonderful idea. She gave each child a small loaf of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these kids could sleep in peace, knowing for sure that "today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow."

Eventually a book was launched based on this premise. It is amazingly simple, and basically reminds you to ask yourself two questions at the end of each day: 1) For what am I most grateful? 2) For what am I least grateful? These questions help you identify moments that gave you life and moments that drained life.

Why are these two questions so powerful? For me, I need this simple exercise each day because it helps me get better at telling the truth about who I am and what I need. It helps me navigate an ever-changing world by staying focused on the good stuff and realistically filtering through the bad stuff. These questions are also excellent fodder for conversation. Ask a loved one these questions and you will learn something new; ask a stranger these questions and you will make a friend. Besides, it digs so much deeper than the standard, "How are you?" that we hurl into the air a zillion times a day. These questions are quick, simple and meaningful.

There are many ways to ask the same questions: When did I give and receive the most love today? When did I give and receive the least love today? Or...When did I feel most alive today? When did I most feel life draining out of me today? Or... What was today's high point? What was today's low point? And yet another way: When today did I have the greatest sense of belonging to myself, others, God and the universe? When did I have the least sense of belonging?

Here's an example, from my journal in 2007: For what am I most grateful? The sky! It was the color of the inside of an oyster shell. For what am I least grateful? It rained! We had to watch the Parade of Roses (Portland, OR) under dripping umbrellas, and we were cold. So you see, I found both joy and discomfort in the same moment. I named both, felt both, and allowed myself to be loved in the midst.

I encourage you to give this a try. Tonight, maybe after supper, get in touch with what made you happy, and give thanks. Then ask what you are not-so-grateful for. Name it, feel it, and appreciate that you are not denying it and God is with you in it. Healing will seep in, to the degree you welcome all your feelings and allow yourself to be loved in them. In this way, you can truthfully acknowledge pain and take in love. Hopefully you can fall asleep with a grateful heart and the knowledge that "tomorrow, I will eat"

Sleeping with bread. A good way to remember God speaks through sadness and pain, as well as through times of consolation.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Decorate your Door

Doors. Some are festooned with flowers for summertime, some are bold in their simplicity. Many are painted yellow or red; some are blue with white trim and others are so weathered, they emit a quiet story of survival.

Now that I live in town, I enjoy walking through the neighborhood. The first thing I notice about a house is the door, usually. I don't know why. I suppose it's because a doorway is a portal to an undiscovered place. And it's usually closed, or perhaps more loosely defined by a screen door. Either way, it's a gate, a hedge of privacy, a silent barrier to the world.

What if someone asked you to describe yourself in the analogy of a door? For instance, if you are a Screen Door Person, you are probably easy and breezy. You prefer casual, and barefoot is even better. At times you feel a little creaky and squeaky; your "screen" is torn in places and there are gaps you'd rather weren't quite so visible. Your life is all about constant coming and going -- you wouldn't want it any other way. Embracing change is something you do naturally, and you get a little grumpy and resentful when they install the storm door in your place.

If you're a Sliding Glass Door Person, on the other hand, you are transparent. Really. People can see right through you. Your latch sticks a lot, but usually somebody knows how to jiggle your workings and get you going again. You have lots of visible smudges all over you, from toddlers and wet doggy noses, but you like this - it's who you are.

Are you a French Door Person, maybe? If so, you radiate beauty and order. You look, well, tidy. Rather formal, in fact. You open with practiced finesse. You have such a "together" look, that people sometimes avoid you. They seek out other doors with sturdier handles, noisier hinges, well worn threshholds. You've got that great curb appeal going on, but you'd rather be grimy and in the game. Others appreciate you, but they don't truly know you.

Front Door People... you thrive on communicating, with a big banner for every occasion: Congratulations, Grads! Welcome Home! Happy Birthday! It's a Boy! People smile when they see you. When company comes to call, you are swung open wide and the joyful words pour out: Come in! Are you hungry? You've grown so big! How long can you stay? What's for supper? Front Door People are approachable, warm, and safe to be around.

Back Door People are special because they are on call 24/7. If you're one of these, you are a keeper of've more than once let in a family member past curfew, whispering shut behind them. You'll never tell. You are a co-conspirator, guardian of secrets, safe harbor. Back Door People are witness to muddy boots, hasty goodbyes, hello kisses, nosy neighbors, abandoned book bags, bicycle parts and recycle bins.

Whatever your facade, the mystery beneath is amazing -- a heady mix, a unique blend of DNA, life experiences, family history, stories, setbacks and celebrations. So throw a decoration on your "door" and be whoever you are with joy and abandon! Passers by will pause, and have a look. Some of them will come right up to you and ring your bell. I'd say, be ready for anything.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Lesson of the Daphnia Bug

Bugs. Ugh. If bugs could read, I'd post little signs strategically in my home: "Hostile Territory -- Do Not Enter". While I search for ways to exterminate the critters, others of a more scientific ilk are looking for ways to appreciate them. Which brings me to a really cool story I heard on the radio back in February. A bug enthusiast named Saran (yes, like the wrap) was being interviewed about a teeny tiny creature called the Daphnia. Saran enthused as to how this well-studied creature can grow a spear and a helmet when threatened. Really! She had my attention, despite the bug element. I had to know more.

She explained the Daphnia Bugs, commonly known as water fleas, are short-lived creatures that survive in constantly changing conditions. They are engineered to cope with their environment in amazing ways -- like the armor, for instance. You've got to keep in mind, this animal is roughly the size of the equal (=) sign on your keyboard. A bug that small is capable of sprouting its very own protective gear when bullies come around. Wow. Suddenly I felt a trace of respect, awe even, for All Things Bug-like. Well, most things bug like, anyway.

If God, whom I recognize as the Infinite Creator, took the time to equip a bug with battle gear, then He also must have a plan of protection for me! I don't have to look too far to summon sturdy battle attire: loyal family, reliable friends, my church, my Bible. Prayer. Fortifying air in the morning. Incomprehensible galaxies glimmering in the night sky. Hearty food. Liberating laughter.

It's all there, within easy reach. Armor, for the unseen .... Protection against adversity. A cloak of peace for whatever troubles may be lurking about in the shadows of a fallen world.

Great stories often come in small packages. A humble bug has reminded me of a mighty Creator.

Next time I feel threatened, or afraid, I will reach for the provisions ready and waiting. And I will remember the lesson of the Daphnia Bug.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bumper Sticker Theology

Stuck in traffic. Some of the most profound truths are discovered while stopped at a red light during rush hour.

Last week I inched forward in my Honda to get a closer view of the bumper sticker directly in front of me. It declared, in Pennsylvania redneck tradition, "GET IN. SIT DOWN. SHUT UP. HOLD ON." The sticker was a perfect match for the raggamuffin pick-up truck. The dents and dangling fender told a quick story of off road adventure.

I don't know why, but those 8 unrefined words began to work on me, right then and there. Trance-like, I fell into sync with traffic flow, mulling over the message.

GET IN -- You have to commit, whether it's loyalty to a marriage, a diet, a pair of shoes or even a flavor of ice cream; failure to adhere leads to certain disaster. One must simply "get in" and stay in -- another truck will come along, but it won't be this one in this moment. You decide, but don't dawdle -- the light's about to change.

SIT DOWN -- A good idea, when the adventure is already in motion. You'd best sit tight and hope you've got a window seat.

SHUT UP -- A whole heap of hollerin will just add to the commotion. Instead, try listening. What seems like noise and smoke may actually sound like music, once you attune your ear to it.

HOLD ON -- Total wisdom here. The best way to prepare for sudden stops, turns and unknown roads is to hold on. Find what is true, and solid, and hang onto it for all you're worth.

Who knew a redneck bumper sticker could be a metaphor for life? From shiny new grads to rumpled retirees, we could all take a cue from a weathered pick-up sporting a direct dose of theology...Get in. Sit down. Shut up. And hold on. It's gonna be a wild ride.